Yes, Phoenix is the sixth largest city in the country. But that doesn’t mean it's lost touch with its Wild West heritage, horse ranches, ghost towns, and saloons.
We’ve traveled to every corner of the Valley and found iconic places to experience the Old West across town – from the Vulture Mine in Wickenburg to the Queen Creek Horseshoe Park to the Heard Museum in Central Phoenix.
Here are 10 spots carrying over the spirit of the Arizona territory. Just prepare to get a little dusty.
Buffalo Chip Saloon
Located in Cave Creek (an Old West destination in and of itself), Buffalo Chip Saloon is where the Old West meets the honky-tonk, according to owner Larry Wendt. Wendt was always into chuck-wagon cook-offs and Western culture, but once he retired from law enforcement, he fully immersed himself in the Old West.
Buffalo Chip is known for its events, including live music (usually from the Pick o' the Litter band) and dancing, food cooked in Dutch ovens, and weekly bull riding. Wendt guarantees authenticity to patrons at Buffalo Chip, 6811 East Cave Creek Road. There are horse amenities in case you travel by steed, a buffet of briskets, cowboy beans, and honey butter biscuits, and “a lot of boots and hats.” Call 480-488-9118 or see www.buffalochipsaloon.com.
A staple in central Phoenix since 1929, the Heard Museum focuses on American Indian art and history with living exhibits on American Indian heritage. Located at 2301 North Central Avenue, the institute is also a well-known host of annual events like the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market, the El Mercado de Las Artes, and the World Championship Hoop Dance Contest.
Starting April 9, 2016, the Heard Museum will feature a highly anticipated Old West exhibit – "Over the Edge: Fred Harvey at the Grand Canyon and in the Great Southwest."
Diana Pardue, curator of collections at the Heard Museum, says the story they tell couples the Santa Fe Railway with “Fred Harvey’s promotion of travel on the railway using Native American imagery, both of people and of objects,” she says, “And in addition to that we look at a lot of the Native American individuals who worked with the Fred Harvey Company.” Call 602-252-8840 or visit www.heard.org.
Horseshoe Park & Equestrian Centre
Set in the Town of Queen Creek at the site of the former Desert Wells Stage Stop of the 1800s and early 1900s, Queen Creek Horseshoe Park & Equestrian Centre has embraced the area’s equestrian heritage since opening in 2008.
Scoot your boots over to the park at 20464 East Riggs Road, as the center hosts (often-free) events such as the Roots N’ Boots Rodeo and Extreme Mustang Makeover, and organizations including the Arizona Cutting Horse Association and Cowboy Mounted Shooting.
According to center representative Constance Halonen-Wilson, “Patrons can experience the Old West lifestyle at the 4-H County Finals or the Chandler Vaqueros Saddle Club.” Which is to say, this is “agritainment” at its best. For details, call 480-358-3710 or see www.queencreek.org/departments/horseshoe-park-equestrian-centre.
Lost Dutchman State Park
If you’re not from the East Valley, you’ll recognize the familiar backdrop of Lost Dutchman State Park if you’ve ever headed east – and we mean east – on U.S. Route 60. Found along the famed Apache Trail at 6109 North Apache Trail, the park doesn’t have Old West structures or artifacts, but what it does have is this: authentic scenery of the authentic West (heck, further back than that).
What it also has is the "Old West lure of the fabled Lost Dutchman Mine for visitors to experience," says park manager Tim Kristof in an email. "Of course, some of it is based upon the visitor's vivid imagination."
Try to find the famous mine yourself, but watch your footing. “Scattered at the foot of the Superstition Mountainous area are ‘holes’ (known as prospects) dug into the earth by desperate miners called ‘prospectors’ searching for that oh-so-rare yellow metal we know as gold,” says Kristof. “Gold fever was rampant in the Old West and somewhat for a few souls today.” Call 480-982-4485 or visit www.azstateparks.com/parks/lodu.
Spanning 1,280 acres, the entrance to MacDonald’s Ranch, which features a horse painted as the Arizona flag, can’t be missed along the Desert Foothills Scenic Drive in north Scottsdale.
“This is still the Old West,” says owner and founder’s son, Robert “Robbie” Richardson. “This is one of the last little places in Scottsdale to a get Western experience.”
Originating as Old MacDonald Farm in the 1950s, the ranch, located 26540 North Scottsdale Road, offers horseback rides, cookouts, and a frontier town. The ranch only charges admission in October for its annual pumpkin patch (horses and wagons are still used to serve about 30,000 attendees).
MacDonald’s Ranch has close to 100 homegrown horses. “I can tell you all their names, but I can’t give you a number,” says Richardson. But, “I know when one’s missing.” Call 480-585-0239 or see www.macdonaldsranch.com.
Pioneer Living History Museum
Found up Interstate 17 at the appropriate Pioneer Road exit, the Pioneer Living History Museum showcases the spirit of a late 1800s pioneer village in just 90 acres at 3901 West Pioneer Road.
Here you’ll find authentic to historically accurate structures like a stone corral, sheriff’s office, church, bank, blacksmith, carpenter, and the opera house. You also can’t miss the helpful interpreters dressed as “cowboys, lawmen, and lovely Victorian ladies.”
The neighboring Ben Avery Shooting Facility adds a little bit of authenticity, as shots can be heard in the distance – just like the Wild West. Call 623-465-1052 or see www.pioneeraz.org.
Rawhide Western Town & Steakhouse
This one may be obvious, but it's still relevant. Chandler's Rawhide Western Town & Steakhouse – locally referred to as just “Rawhide” – evokes thoughts of Michael Crichton’s 1973 film Westworld.
Open to the public Friday through Sunday, Rawhide does a lot as a Western-themed destination at 5700 West North Loop Road. See live-action stunt shows at Six Gun Theater, paw through 1880s souvenirs at the General Store, dress up in old-timey costumes at Photo Emporium, and hit the popular Rawhide Steakhouse.
Other attractions in this here town range from the Barnyard Express Kiddie Train to a mechanical bull simply called “The Widowmaker.” For more information, call 480-502-5600 or see www.rawhide.com.
Rockin’ R Ranch
Billed as Arizona's Wild West Town, Mesa's Rockin’ R Ranch offers gunfights to gold panning. Once an operating cattle and horse ranch, the spot, located at 6136 East Baseline Road, is now owned by Big Jim and Sweet Mary Robson.
That name sound familiar? It’s the same family as Mesa founder Charles Innes Robson I, and Deputy Marshall Frank Robson (killed by infamous outlaw Black Jack Ketchum). Sounds like the Robsons know what they’re doing. For more information, call 480-832-1539 or visit www.rockinr.net.
Out in Wickenburg, the Vulture Mine was “to date, the largest gold-producing mine in Arizona,” according to tour assistant Carrie Smith. Henry Wickenburg discovered the mine around 1863, and by 1866, a settlement formed.
“At one time 5,000 people were living in what was called Vulture City,” Smith says. The mining camp had it all: a schoolhouse, saloon, brothel, and “they even had a tennis court.” The mine operated until 1942, and Vulture City was eventually abandoned. It is now known as Vulture City Ghost Town, 36610 North 355th Avenue, and it is said to be haunted.
Today, two-hour guided tours are offered Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon. Along a half-mile dirt path you’ll see Henry Wickenburg’s cabin and the iconic Hanging Tree. Smith describes this excursion as a “very rustic experience” and “an off-the-grid, raw tour” – so, truly Old West. For more info, call the Wickenburg Chamber of Commerce at 928-684-5479 or visit www.vultureminetours.com.
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Western Spirit: Scottsdale's Museum of the West
A recent addition to the Valley’s many Western spots also holds some of the most iconic and influential Western artifacts and artwork in ... we want to say, the world.
Western Spirit – otherwise known as the Scottsdale Museum of the West – opened in January 2015 at 3830 North Marshall Way, and has since been certified as a Smithsonian Affiliate museum, and awarded the 2016 “Best Western Museum” by True West Magazine (headquartered in Cave Creek).
The museum currently houses the Abe Hays Family Spirit of the West Collection and "Courage and Crossroads: A Visual Journey through the Early American West." The latter features Kit Carson’s actual pistol. The museum also offers works by all 77 Cowboy Artists of America and an interactive Lewis and Clark exhibition. For more information, call 480-686-9539 or see www.scottsdalemuseumwest.org.